Lilly was as good as her word. With a parting nod to Beanbag, we left the bar and I found myself once again swimming through the crowds, though this time with a welcome partner. Lilly led the way, parting swaths of people aside with remarkable ease. I had no idea where we were going, only that with my hand in hers, I was prepared to follow her to the ends of the earth.
We passed by the hamburger stand and the mustachioed owner I had unwittingly annoyed earlier. Lilly gave my hand a squeeze, then let go and approached the stand. She must’ve been hungry. My stomach gurgled. Perhaps it was time for the greasy food for me, as well. I called out after her, “If you want a burger I can get you one, no problem.” I pointed my thumb to the end of the line.
She turned her head but didn’t slow down. “Why? I’m already doing that.” She approached the side of the stand, completely bypassing the long line of grumbling people. No one seemed to notice. I shook my head. City folk were so wrapped up in themselves. If she had cut to the front instead, they’d have chewed her head off. I watched her get the burger guy’s attention. Her back was to me and I couldn’t hear what they said, but I got the impression he wasn’t happy about someone not in line and wasting his time. He had two burgers wrapped up and was in the process of handing them over to the woman at the front of the line. Lilly held up two fingers. He shook his head. She balled her other hand into a fist and brought the two fingers closer to his face with emphasis. He shrugged. And then handed over the two wrapped burgers. Incredibly, the other woman just stood there politely, looking around like she was waiting on a bus. The man turned away from Lilly and began remaking the other woman’s food. Lilly swirled around, a satisfied grin on her face then came back to me.
“Here,” she said, pushing the burger toward my face. “I could tell you were getting hungry.”
Had my stomach growled that loudly? “Thanks,” I said. Then something occurred to me. “I didn’t even see you give money to that guy.”
She shrugged. “He knew me.”
A flicker of jealousy wormed its way through my insides. I took a bite of the burger, hoping to drown the jealous worm in grease.
She must’ve seen the look on my face. After a few moments, she smirked and said, “I’m not that kind of person.”
She wasn’t? Then why had she picked me up nearly sight unseen? It’s not like I was doing any modelling or running for playboy of the year. She kept an eye on me as we walked, and I had the distinct impression she was studying my reaction. Maybe I should just ask her, instead of letting speculation and doubt sour the evening.
“So—“ I began.
“Why you?” She finished.
“I started to bring that up back at the bar. But we both got a bit distracted.”
I nodded. The Gaelic poetry thing. I had forgotten the original track of that conversation before I had derailed it by talking about her performance.
“You’ve got a dumb sort of honesty about you.”
“That’s…” I shook my head. “That’s pretty blunt.”
“Sometimes being blunt is the only way to clear away the bullshit,” she said.
“You’ve known me for maybe an hour or so. How could you tell that about someone so quickly?” I thought back to our previous interactions, and her getting free burgers out of the surly burger stand guy. I playfully shielded my face from her view with a hand and asked, “Are you a mind reader?”
She laughed. “If I was, do you really think that hand would block you from me?”
“It’s all about body language,” she said. “You can learn a lot about people by paying attention to your surroundings—“ she arched an eyebrow, “and not spending so much time worrying about things.”
Was she talking about me? Or was wondering about it completely missing the point of what she had said? We finished our food and threw away the trash. I looked up at the bright starry sky. I wasn’t used to seeing them so clearly, with all the light pollution the city threw off. But tonight they were shining with an intensity I’d never seen.
“Huh,” I mused. “Wasn’t it thundering earlier?”
Her eyes flicked up to the sky then back to where we were walking. She seemed to have ignored my comment, instead saying, “Let’s go check out the boardwalk.”
I shrugged. “If you want, sure. I mean, it’s not what it used to be, with all the shops closing down and everything.”
She reached for my hand and she led the way. I barely noticed where we were going as a flash of pink lightning split the sky above us. Lightning without clouds? Was that even possible? And it was pink. I’ll admit I wasn’t on the forefront of meteorological knowledge, but I’d never heard of pink lightning. Lilly’s pace quickened, but I barely registered this as we threaded our way through the unhurried throngs of people.
“It’s like trying to move through a herd of cattle,” she said through clenched teeth.
I chuckled. “I know, right? Why is it that the faster someone tries to get somewhere, the slower and more in-the-way everyone else gets?”
She didn’t answer. I saw her glance up at the sky when more lightning flashed, followed by that low, rumbling vibration from earlier. And why not? If lightning could happen on a cloudless, why not thunder? It stood to reason, I supposed.
Our pace quickened again. “What’s the hurry?” I asked, not too bothered by the light jog. I didn’t exercise nearly enough, and to be honest it felt refreshing.
“Um, there’s a place that’s closing soon.”
“Ah.” It was getting late. I wondered why she had put off going to this place until closing time.
The crowds of people no longer made way for us. We dodged through the meandering masses, until there wasn’t even room to do that.
“Johnny, this’ll sound shitty. But just shove through them.”
“What, why?” This seemed a bit much. Being in a hurry was one thing, but there was no need to be rude.
“Because they’re not going to move and we are not going to miss this deadline.”
A cold chill flooded through me when she said that. I still hadn’t thought of anything to write that article about. I was going to miss the submission deadline. For the first time, my procrastination-fueled muse had failed me. Would Eugene let me go if I was late? He couldn’t, I’d never been late before. He was an understanding fellow, once you got him to stop fretting.
“Why did you wait so long then?” I shouted, as we zig-zagged through the people. Lilly wasn’t shy about pushing people out of the way. I tried my best to find a way through without knocking anyone over.
“I thought we had more time!” She yelled, dropping my hand and turning her job into a run.
What. The. Hell. Was going on? “Hey!” I sped up and realized that the nice stranger act wasn’t going to cut it if I was going to keep up with Lilly. My shoulder banged off a tall guy’s arm, my elbow glanced an old lady’s side, I tripped over a kid’s sneaker. I yelled sorry to each one, but didn’t stop. Couldn’t stop. Everyone seemed even slower than before, like they were barely moving at all.
More lightning flashed. More thunder rumbled. Wind was whipping up now. I saw the lights of the city a few blocks down flicker and die. “This is a hell of a storm comin’, Lilly!” I called after her. “Are you sure this place is that important?”
She threw up her hands but kept running. “Sometimes I have my doubts!”
We reached the boardwalk where thankfully the people were thinning, but still no less sluggish. My eyes swept out over the water, trying to see if I could spot the storm on its way over the horizon. It was then I noticed the faint red light reflecting off the waves. A persistent light altogether unlike lightning.
“Don’t look up!” Lilly shouted slowing down a bit to grab my hand again.
Naturally, I looked up. The sky was filled with crackling red flares of light circling above the city in a spiral pattern. I felt myself slowing down and was powerless to look away from the spectacle. The spiral pattern of red light began to spin.
Lilly yanked my hand. “Johnny, we have to move!”
“Yeah…” I said, trying to tell my feet to work. But they would no longer listen.
Lilly grabbed my face and forced it down to hers. Her glowing blue eyes bore into mine. “You. Will. Follow. Now!”
And like that, my feet started up again.
Lilly pointed ahead as we picked up speed again. “There, the boat!”
I saw what she was pointing at. ‘Boat’ seemed a rather trivial word to describe it. ‘Tanker’ would be more accurate. We ran toward the massive ship at the edge of the dock. I wondered how anything of that size had ever fit in city’s docks. A gangplank was extended down to the dock.
A horrible tearing sound filled the air as the red spiral above us all resolved into a vortex. It reminded me of a tornado, but entirely upside down. The wind pelted us with paper and trash as we sprinted toward the ship. The gangplank rose from the dock and began to retract toward the ship.
“Shit!” Lilly swore, putting on another burst of speed. “Johnny…”
“Don’t hate me for this.”
The ship started to move away from the dock.
“What are you talking ab—“
I was yanked forward and off the ground by Lilly’s inhuman grip. She screamed with effort and flung me toward the retreating gangplank as the ship rolled past us.
“Grab on!” She cried. “And don’t let go!”
Everything moved in slow motion now. I flailed through the air, knowing full well that I didn’t have the wherewithal to catch a wooden plank in mid-air, not as unprepared as I was at right now. I could see the plank passing in front of me, then beneath me. I reached for the edge. And missed it entirely. My heart lurched as I spun past my target. The gangplank passed by and I kept going. Lilly had really put her back into that throw, I thought. I saw the red-lit water falling further and further away and realized Lilly had either guessed I would miss, or hadn’t been aiming for the gangplank at all. I spun around just in time to catch the railing of the ship. Right in my gut. The air left my lungs in a horrible rush and I doubled up in pain. The force of Lilly’s throw, however, kept me going over the railing. I flipped through the air and caught sight of the swirling vortex over the city, and I thought I saw something else, like something coming through. And then my spin brought me around only to see the deck rising toward me way too qui—